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Richard Bassett

Richard Bassett

Richard Bassett (April 2 1745 August 15 1815) was an American lawyer and politician from Dover, in Kent County Delaware. He was a veteran of the American Revolution, a delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, and a member of the Federalist Party, who served in the Delaware General Assembly, as Governor of Delaware, and as U.S. Senator from Delaware.

Early life and family

Bassett was born April 2 1745 at Bohemia Ferry in Cecil County, Maryland, son of Arnold and Judith Thompson Bassett. His father was a part time tavern owner and farmer, but deserted the family when Bassett was young. He married Ann Ennals in 1774 and they had three children, Richard Ennals, Ann (known as Nancy), and Mary. After his first wife’s death he married Betsy Garnett in 1796. They were active members of the Methodist Church, and gave the church much of their time and attention.

Fortunately, Bassett’s mother was the great granddaughter and an heiress of Augustine Herrman, the original owner of Bohemia Manor, a massive estate in Cecil County, and her family raised Bassett. Eventually this heritage provided him with inherited wealth and a plantation, Bohemia Manor, in Cecil County, and much other property in New Castle County, Delaware.

Early political career

Bassett studied the law under Judge Robert Goldsborough of Dorchester County, Maryland and in 1770 was admitted to the Bar. He moved to Dover, Delaware, then just the court town of Kent County, and began a practice there. By concentrating on agricultural pursuits as well as religious and charitable concerns, he quickly established himself amongst the local gentry and “developed a reputation for hospitality and philanthropy.”

Bassett was a reluctant revolutionary, more closely in tune with the approach of George Read than with his neighbors from Kent County, Caesar Rodney and John Haslet. Nevertheless, in 1774 he was elected to the local Boston Relief Committee. When the new government of Delaware was organized, Bassett served on the 1776 Delaware Council of Safety, and was a member of the convention responsible for drafting the Delaware Constitution of 1776, which was adopted September 20 1776. He was then one of the conservatives elected to Delaware's first Legislative Council, and served for four sessions, from 1776/77 through 1779/80. Subsequently, he was a member of the House of Assembly for the 1780/81 and 1781/82 sessions, and returned to the Legislative Council, for three sessions from 1782/83 through 1784/85. He concluded his state legislative career with a final term in the House of Assembly during the 1786/87 session. He thereby represented Kent County in all but one session of the Delaware General Assembly from independence to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution of 1787.

American Revolution

However, Bassett’s most notable contributions during the American Revolution were his efforts to mobilize the state’s military. Some sources credit him with developing the plans for raising and staffing the 1st Delaware Regiment, with his neighbor John Haslet at its command. Known as the "Delaware Continentals" or "Delaware Blues," they were from the smallest state, but at some 800 men, were the largest battalion in the army. David McCullough in 1776 describes them "turned out in handsome red trimmed blue coats, white waistcoats, buckskin breeches, white woolen stockings, and carrying fine, 'lately imported' English muskets. Raised in early 1776, they went into service in July and August 1776. Bassett also participated in the recruitment of the reserve militia that served in the “Flying Camp” of 1776, and the Dover Light Infantry, led by another neighbor, Thomas Rodney.

When the British Army marched through northern New Castle County, on the way to the Battle of Brandywine and the capture of Philadelphia, Bassett “appears to have joined his friend Rodney in the field as a volunteer.” Once the Delaware militia returned home after the British retired from the area, Bassett continued as a part-time soldier, assuming command of the Dover Light Horse, Kent County's militia cavalry unit.

Federal Constitution and United States Senate

From his wartime experience, Bassett quickly came to realize the shortcoming of the government under the Articles of Confederation, and was an early supporter of reforms. He was among those representing Delaware in 1786 at the Annapolis Convention, and again was part of the same delegation at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. Although he never spoke, and served on no committees, he was a strong supporter of the Great Compromise promoted by another neighbor, John Dickinson. With this agreement incorporated into the resulting document, Bassett made his major contribution to the effort by leading the effort to quickly gain its ratification in Delaware. He was so successful that Delaware formally agreed just five months after the Philadelphia Convention, and before any other state. Because of this, Delaware has ever since been known as “the First State.”

With the establishment of the new government the Delaware General Assembly elected Bassett as one of the first new U.S. Senators. While there were no parties at the time he served, he was a supporter of a strong central government, and was allied particularly with the positions of Vice President John Adams. He “supported President George Washington's right to control the internal workings of the executive branch through the power of dismissing appointed officials, but he opposed some of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's more extreme proposals for advancing the powers of the presidency.” He was also among the first to advocate removing the federal capital to a new city on the Potomac River. Recent scholars have therefore classified him among the “Anti-Administration” members of the 1st Congress, but among the “Pro-Administration” members of the 2nd. In all he served in those two sessions, from March 4 1789, to March 3 1793, during the administration of U.S. President George Washington.

Later political career

Meanwhile, the Delaware Constitution of 1776, was in need of revision, and Bassett once again joined with John Dickinson, in leading the convention to draft a revision, which became the Delaware Constitution of 1792. Upon his retirement from the United States Senate in 1793 he began a six-year term as the first Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Delaware. At the time it was a court of general civil jurisdiction and the predecessor of the present Delaware Superior Court. By this time Bassett was formally a member of the Federalist Party, and as such was elected Governor of Delaware in 1799. It was during his time in office that Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours first came to Delaware to begin his gunpowder business.

However, it was also during his term that Thomas Jefferson was elected President of the United States, causing great concern for the future of the country among the Federalists. The retiring President John Adams, rushed the Judiciary Act of 1801 through the Federalist Congress, creating a number of new judgeships on the United States circuit courts. Being a staunch Federalist and old political ally, Adams appointed Bassett on his last day in office in 1801 to one of the positions. He was one of the so-called midnight judges. But the legislation was repealed by the new Jeffersonian Congress, and his tenure ended quickly in April 1802. He never again held public office.


Delaware General Assembly
(sessions while Governor)
Year Assembly Senate Majority Speaker House Majority Speaker
1799 23rd Federalist Isaac Davis Federalist Stephen Lewis
1800 24th Federalist James Sykes Federalist Stephen Lewis
1801 25th Federalist James Sykes Federalist Stephen Lewis

Methodism

In addition to his high profile in government, Bassett was a devout and energetic convert to Methodism. Having met Francis Asbury in 1778 at the home of their mutual friend, Judge Thomas White, Bassett soon had a conversion experience, and for the remainder of his life devoted much of his attention and wealth to the promotion of Methodism. He and Asbury remained lifelong friends. This association caused him to become linked in many people’s minds to the loyalists, as both White and Asbury were viewed to be opposed to the war. But it also led to a strong abolitionist belief, which led him to free his own slaves and advocate the emancipation of others.

Death and legacy

Bassett died August 15 1815 at Bohemia Manor in Cecil County, Maryland and was first buried there. In 1865 his remains were moved to a Bassett and Bayard mausoleum in the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery in Wilmington, Delaware.

Bassett was a stout man of medium build. He was very fashionable and influential in society. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 he was described as "gentlemanly, a religious enthusiast and a man of plain sense" with "modesty enough to hold his tongue." Bassett’s daughter, Anne married James A. Bayard, a U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator, and they were the ancestors of the branch of the Bayard family that has played a prominent role in Delaware politics ever since. His niece and adopted daughter, Rachel McCleary, married Governor Joshua Clayton of yet another family long prominent in Delaware politics.

Almanac

Elections were held the first Tuesday of October. Before 1792, members of the General Assembly took office on the twentieth day of October. Legislative Councilors had a three year term and the Assemblymen had a one year term. After 1792, the Governor was popularly elected and took office the third Tuesday in January, for a term of three years. The General Assembly chose the delegates to the U.S. Constitution Convention. They also chose the U.S. Senators, who took office March 4th, and normally served for a six year term. However, Bassett's term was for only four years to establish a rotation.

Public Offices
Office Type Location Elected Term began Term ends notes
Delegate State Convention Dover August 29 1776 September 20 1776 Delaware
Legislative Councilor Legislature New Castle 1776 October 20 1776 October 20 1779
Legislative Councilor Legislature Dover 1779 October 20 1779 October 20 1780
Assemblyman Legislature Dover 1780 October 20 1780 October 20 1781
Assemblyman Legislature Dover 1781 October 20 1781 October 21 1782
Legislative Councilor Legislature Dover 1782 October 21 1782 October 20 1785
Assemblyman Legislature Dover 1786 October 20 1786 October 21 1787
Delegate Convention Philadelphia May 14 1787 September 17 1787 United States
U.S. Senator Legislature Philadelphia March 4 1789 March 3 1793 class 2
Delegate State Convention Dover November 1792 June 12 1792 Delaware
Chief Justice Judiciary Dover 1793 January 9 1799 Court of Common Pleas
Governor Executive Dover 1798 January 9 1799 February 20 1801 resigned
Judge Judiciary Dover February 20 1801 April 1802 U.S. Circuit Court


Delaware General Assembly service
Dates Assembly Chamber Majority Governor Committees District
1776/77 1st State Council non-partisan John McKinly Kent at-large
1777/78 2nd State Council non-partisan George Read Kent at-large
1778/79 3rd State Council non-partisan Caesar Rodney Kent at-large
1779/80 4th State Council non-partisan Caesar Rodney Kent at-large
1780/81 5th State House non-partisan Caesar Rodney Kent at-large
1781/82 6th State House non-partisan John Dickinson Kent at-large
1782/83 7th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke Kent at-large
1783/84 8th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke Kent at-large
1784/85 9th State Council non-partisan Nicholas Van Dyke Kent at-large
1786/87 11th State House non-partisan Thomas Collins Kent at-large


United States Congressional service
Dates Congress Chamber Majority President Committees Class/District
1789-1791 1st U.S. Senate non-partisan George Washington class 2
1791–1793 2nd U.S. Senate non-partisan George Washington class 2


Election results
Year Office Subject Party Votes % Opponent Party Votes %
1798 Governor Richard Bassett Federalist 2,490 52% David Hall Democratic-Republican 2,068 44%

Notes

References

  • Conrad, Henry C. (1908). History of the State of Delaware. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wickersham Company.
  • Hoffecker, Carol E. (2004). Democracy in Delaware. Wilmington, Delaware: Cedar Tree Books. ISBN 1-892142-23-6.
  • Munroe, John A. (1954). Federalist Delaware 1775-1815. Rutgers University, New Brunswick.
  • Martin, Roger A. (1984). History of Delaware Through its Governors. Wilmington, Delaware: McClafferty Press.
  • Martin, Roger A. (1995). Memoirs of the Senate. Newark, Delaware: Roger A. Martin.
  • Scharf, John Thomas (1888). History of Delaware 1609-1888. 2 vols. Philadelphia: L. J. Richards & Co. ISBN 0-87413-493-5.

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